The Castle of Mey is famous as the home of the Queen Mother from 1952. It’s about 400 yards from the seashore and overlooks the Pentland Firth and Orkney Islands.
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The Z plan castle was built between 1566-1572 by 4th Earl of Caithness for his second son William Sinclair. A fortified granary is thought to have been the original building on the site. The castle is built in the architecture style of the time with jutting towers and corbelled turrets. The parapet of the large turret uses winged cherub heads for corbels. On the ground floor and first floor are gun slits. The north round arched courtyard entrance is unchanged from the original.
When visiting the family seat Girnigoe Castle in 1573, William was murdered by his older brother John in 1573 at Girnigoe Castle. Their cruel father had imprisoned John, who was planning an escape. William ratted on John to his father, thus precipitating his own murder. John also was murdered and thus Mey Castle ended up in the hands of the third son, George. It was George who founded the Sinclair family of Mey. He changed the castle name to Barrogill. The castle then became the seat of the Earls of Caithness for the next one hundred years.
In 1819 the 12th Earl commissioned the architect, William Burn, to make alterations to the castle. It was at this time that the grand entrance and the dining room were added. The 15th Earl, having no heirs, left the castle to a friend, F. G. Heathcote, requiring him to change his name to Sinclair. Heathcote’ widow sold it to Captain F. B. Imbert-Terry who then sold it to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother, in 1952.
When the Queen Mother bought the castle she furnished it with local items as well as ones she brought with her. She converted the kitchen to a library where her desk and favourite photographs were located. A new kitchen was constructed on the ground floor with a butler’s pantry above. The dining room was once a billiard room, and the original dining room was became the Equerry’s room. Mains water and electricity did not exist until the Queen Mother had them installed.
The gardens had been long neglected when the Queen Mother bought the castle in 1952. Head gardener James Sinclair began the task of reinstating them to their former glory. The area is divided into a walled garden and parkland to the west, and an east border and parkland to the east. A 12 foot high wall protects the gardens from salt spray and sea gales. The east garden, with fuchsia hedges, has a woodland area. The different sections are planted with woodland plants such as primulas, astilbes, hellebores, hostas, ferns and foxgloves.
Mixed hedges of hardy shrubs divide the walled garden into sections. Fruit, vegetables and flowers are grown in the garden and greenhouse. The produce is used by the tea-room, sold at a plant stall outside the greenhouse, and also used by HRH The Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay when he is staying in the castle.
Flowers in the garden include marigolds, pansies, dahlias, primulas and nasturtiums. In the Shell garden are while old-fashioned shrub roses and climbers. A sensory border contains plants of textures, smells, taste and colours. The Diamond Jubilee Rose Garden is a new addition to the garden. On the eastern side of the garden are the botanic borders. Here are a number of plants given to The Queen Mother by the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh and a more mature rose garden.
Castle and Gardens of Mey
15 miles east of Thurso, Caithness
Tel. 0 1847 851 473
Open: May-end Sep, 9.20am-last entry 4pm; grounds, visitor centre, tea-room, shop and animal centre, 10am-5pm
Visitor centre; tea-room; shop; animal centre; special events; parking; wedding venue
Web: Castle of Mey